The COVID-19 pandemic has shined a light on the health disparities faced by minorities in the U.S., as some ethnic and racial groups are disproportionately affected by the virus. Unfortunately, this is not unique to COVID-19—disparities are also apparent in other health conditions, including cancer. As a member of the Prevent Cancer Foundation’s Congressional Families Cancer Prevention Program®, I am highlighting this important information for Minority Health Awareness Month.
Cancer affects us all, but it does not affect us all equally. Social, environmental, and economic disadvantages place some people, including certain racial/ethnic groups, rural communities (like a good portion of the 1st Congressional District) and those of lower income and education levels, at greater risk for cancer.
Black Americans have the highest death rate of any ethnic/racial group in the U.S. for most cancers. Black men are more than twice as likely as other men to die from prostate cancer, and Black women are 40% more likely to die of breast cancer than white women. On a positive note, since 1990, the cancer death rate among Black Americans has dropped faster than that of white Americans, propelled by declines in lung, colorectal, and prostate cancers.
Hispanics, Asian/Pacific Islanders, and American Indian and Alaska Natives are less likely to be diagnosed with cancer overall, but have higher rates for certain types of cancer, including stomach and liver cancers. Cervical cancer is more common among Hispanic and Black American women than white women. Vaccines are available to protect against viruses that can cause liver and cervical cancers.
People in rural parts of the U.S. are diagnosed with cancer less often, but they are more likely to die of these diseases. Rural America has the highest rates of lung, colorectal, and cervical cancers, which can often be preventable.
The reasons for health disparities are complex. Although some disparities are linked to biology or genetics, social determinants of health—the conditions in the places where people live, learn, work and play that affect health conditions—also play a role. This includes access to health care, safe neighborhoods and reliable transportation, educational and job opportunities, access to nutritious food, and clean water and air.
For example, if a person lacks health insurance and/or lives in a rural area without reliable transportation to a health care facility, they are less likely to get preventive care and routine cancer screenings. If a person lives in a neighborhood without safe walking paths, playgrounds, and stores with fresh produce, it will be more difficult to be physically active and eat healthy. These issues may be beyond an individual’s control, but people and organizations at the local, state, and national levels are working to address them.
Cancer rates and disparities are likely to worsen over the next few years because of the pandemic. According to a recent Prevent Cancer Foundation survey, more than 50% of Americans, particularly Black Americans and Hispanics, who had in-person medical appointments or cancer screenings scheduled missed or postponed their appointments due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Routine cancer screenings are vital to detecting cancer early when successful treatment is more likely. To learn more, visit preventcancer.org.
Nicole Beus Harris is the spouse of Representative Andy Harris, M.D. Statistics provided by the National Cancer Institute, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Cancer Society.